Let’s make this clear: If we went into the apartment where Thomas Eric Duncan, the sole confirmed U.S. Ebola patient (who, sadly, died from the disease yesterday morning), stayed before going back to the hospital and then we woke up the next day with a tummy-ache, we’d be freaking out, too. No one should blame Michael Monnig, the Dallas deputy who had been sent to that apartment to serve a quarantine order to Duncan’s family, for getting nervous that the otherwise-common symptoms he was experiencing might actually be Ebola. That’s just human nature.

What may also, depressingly, be human nature is the desire to sensationalize Monnig’s situation. Here we are, a week into Ebola Watch 2014. We know how Ebola is transmitted—through contact with the bodily fluids of someone who has not only been exposed to the disease, but of someone who is actively exhibiting symptoms, which are then taken into the body. If you towel off the sweat of someone who is infected with Ebola and then bite your cuticles? You might get Ebola. If you enter a room where there are people who have potentially been exposed to Ebola days or weeks earlier but they are not exhibiting symptoms? You are at little risk of getting the disease. Texas health officials have made clear that Monnig is at “no risk of Ebola.” 

Ebola is not airborne. If someone who has Ebola sneezes, you need to actually get their mucus in your mouth/nose/eyes in order to risk infection. If Ebola comes in contact with your skin, Ebola can not get into your body unless you have open wounds or you then stick your fingers in your mouth before you wash your hands. 

In other words: If you’re really paranoid about Ebola, wash your hands more often—but don’t worry about it too much, because there is only one person in this country who we know was actually infectious with Ebola, everyone he came into contact with is in quarantine or under observation, and you would know if you were in that group.

So when you see reports of “Ebola symptoms,” bear in mind what we are talking about here: We are talking about the same symptoms that come with, say, eating a frozen Totino’s Party Pizza that a Walmart employee accidentally let thaw out before putting in the freezer. While we wouldn’t blame someone like Monnig for a surfeit of caution (better to be paranoid than to end up bleeding from the eyes) the assumption that Ebola is coming for us and it’s only a matter of time before we get it is a dangerous—or, at the very least, deeply ignorant—one. 

For example, here is a thing that happened on a flight to Midland yesterday

A passenger aboard a plane flying from Dallas to Midland was taken to the hospital to be checked out after crews thought she was experiencing  symptoms resembling Ebola.

The pilot alerted airport officials that a passenger had flu-like symptoms after the plane landed around 11:05 p.m.

She was taken to a Midland hospital to be evaluated and the CDC was notified.

The woman was vomiting, but did not have a fever.  The CDC said it was unlikely she had Ebola.  In addition, the woman’s flight originated in Turkey, which has no cases of Ebola. 

Midland officials notified passengers on the flight and were told to notify authorities if they experience any symptoms of Ebola.

The poor lady, who was already in the unfortunate position of puking on an airplane, suddenly has an entire flight crew telling her that they think she’s dying of Ebola. Because she had been within 4,968 miles of Liberia, where an Ebola outbreak is happening, and she had an upset stomach. Presumably everyone on that flight who eats some bad fried chicken is also on their way to the hospital while you’re reading this.

(Incidentally, it’s not just the American press that has Ebola fever—which is definitely not to be confused with actual Ebola. The oldest and most venerable English-language paper in Turkey, reported yesterday that a man with Ebola symptoms including diarrhea and a fever is “the second case of a suspected Ebola patient in Turkey, after a Nigerian woman who transited through Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport while traveling from Lagos to Barcelona was rushed to hospital in mid-August. The woman was later diagnosed with malaria.” In other words, the first case of “a suspected Ebola patient” was demonstrably not an actual Ebola case, but a case of malaria, which is a totally different disease. Great work, everybody!) 

So why does this matter? Well, because there are many diseases in the U.S. that can kill you. As NPR points out: Enterovirus D-68! Measles! Whooping cough (newly resurgent thanks to vaccine refusals)! Pneumonia! All of those diseases are much more likely to put the health and safety of you or someone you care about at risk than Ebola. 

But if the hospitals and emergency rooms are clogged with people who have been convinced that their upset tummy and stiff neck are proof that they’re twenty minutes away from bloody eyeballs and a newsworthy death? Doctors suddenly have a lot less time to deal with real problems. 

So when you read that someone with “suspected Ebola symptoms” has been reported nearby, bear in mind what that actually refers to: It refers to symptoms that are so common that you can get them from a bad donut.

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t take Ebola seriously, or that the disease isn’t horrible, or that exercising reasonable caution is a bad idea. But that’s kind of the point: Suspect that everybody with an upset stomach probably has Ebola is the opposite of taking Ebola seriously. We don’t know how this is all going to play out right now, but panic, paranoia, and hypochondria are not anybody’s friends in preventing this from going from unfortunate to tragic. 


(image via Flickr)